Sam Donnellon | Rowand's the talk of two cities

Posted: June 12, 2007

THE PHONE CALLS usually follow something embarrassing. Paul Konerko fell on his face running out a ball in Toronto last week, and Aaron Rowand hit the speed dial on his cell phone. Rowand swung at a Tim Wakefield knuckleball this spring and it hit his elbow, and . . .

"I got a few phone calls that day," Rowand said last night.

Last night was about Jim Thome's return to the town he once owned.

The way Aaron Rowand owns Chicago, right now.

Yes, right now.

As the Phillies prepared their interview room for the inevitable Thome news conference, Rowand stood in a hallway behind the home dugout and watched the crowd in front of him swell. Local media guys, Chicago media guys, all probing the what-ifs of then, and of now.

Two autumns ago, Aaron Rowand won a World Series with the Chicago White Sox, chasing down balls in centerfield as he did for the Phillies last night, smashing into walls as he has for the Phillies, providing a leadership presence that is as easy to identify as it is hard to define.

"I think Aaron Rowand still feels like he wears a White Sox uniform," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said the other day, but the corollary to that might be more true. One writer told Rowand he was a "mythical" figure in Chicago. "I don't think that's the case," he said, so it was downgraded to "cult" by another Sox scribe.

"It's flattering," Rowand said finally. "You hear, 'Hey, that guy's a great hitter.' Or 'that guy's a great centerfielder.' The ultimate compliment anybody's ever given me in my entire career is, 'Hey, I really like watching the way that guy plays.' And when people say that to me, I can't thank them enough."

It is part of why he has a cult there, and a smaller one here. Beyond the .319 average, beyond the career year he is threatening to have as free agency approaches, Rowand is one of those rare guys who seem to forge a team, the way Terry Pendleton did when he left the Cardinals and joined the Braves. You liked his bat and his glove was adequate, but Pendleton also seemed to produce a consistency of play by others.

Some among the Phillies brass believe the loss of Rowand last season sabotaged their postseason chances more than any other factor. Two seasons removed from the trade, many in Chicago believe the Sox' troubles would be zapped if they could just re-obtain him.

"I wasn't the sole reason we won the World Series," Rowand said. "There's a lot of talent in that locker room without me. I was just a contributor. I'd like to think I made a couple of defensive plays, got a couple hits in key situations to win some ballgames. But it wasn't just me. It was everybody that made that team go."

Here's the problem with that: Nobody is making that team go now. Not Paul Konerko, not Jermaine Dye, not the always chatty A.J. Pierzynski. Other than home runs, they are last in virtually every meaningful offensive category.

"It's like watching ESPNews after 11 o'clock at night," Guillen said with a sigh after his team fell to 27-33 with last night's 3-0 loss to the Phillies. "Same thing over and over and over for 24 hours. That's what this feels like right now."

Rowand enjoyed last night, but he acknowledges feeling their pain. Watching a day game in the Phillies' clubhouse recently, he was visibly upset when White Sox relievers - who have been awful - walked in the winning run.

"Because you still consider them teammates," he said. "You build relationships. And there's mostly the same guys over there. You still feel like you want them to do good, you want them to win. Because you still care about them. Not only as players but as friends."

Which begs this: Is Rowand destined to return to Chicago when free agency beckons? If so, and if the White Sox continue to cascade from the playoff hunt as the Phillies continue to hang around, would a deal involving Rowand and White Sox ace Mark Buehrle - an impending free agent - be something that could bolster ticket sales on the South Side, and give the Phillies that much-needed arm to finally reach the postseason?

Ah, be careful though. This is Aaron Rowand we're talking about. A man who can own a town from 760 miles away, two seasons removed from wearing its colors.

"Nobody has talked to anybody about anything yet," Rowand said. "So it's completely up in the air. Whether it's here, there, somewhere else.

"I have absolutely no idea how it's going to play out." *

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